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How TV is refining its secret recipe

Sertan Sanderson
September 18, 2015

From the small town of Twin Peaks to Walter White's meth lab, TV series have penetrated contemporary culture. Ahead of the Emmys, here's what TV is doing to get us hooked - no matter where we live.

Still from "Breaking Bad", Copyright: "ddp images / Ben Leuner / AMC / Taschen-Verlag
Image: ddp images / Ben Leuner / AMC / Taschen-Verlag

"Breaking Bad," "House of Cards" and "Suits" fans already know that intricate, multi-season dramas have long since replaced the canned laughter of soap operas and sitcoms that many of us grew up with (think "Home Improvement" and "The Cosby Show"), but also more recent attempts like the now-discontinued "Two and a Half Men."

Hollywood is listening in to the TV show hype - and getting nervous. For good reason: Chemistry teacher Walter White, first lady Claire Underwood and quasi lawyer Mike Ross become our closest companions, whether we love or hate them.

As opposed to movies, which typically only provide 90 to 120 minutes of framework to build a relationship with the main characters of a narrative, series allow audiences to follow these characters over a prolonged period spanning months, even years.

TV shows become our social life

We get to know them over time, and if we're honest, we would like to meet them in person - even though we know they don't exist. The series characters become friends, family, even pseudo-lovers in some cases. While movies are something we may enjoy as part of our social life, series have become our social life - a modern twist on the term "family entertainment."

The cover of "TASCHEN's Favortie TV Shows"
The cover of TASCHEN's book features an image from 'Twin Peaks' - the show that changed the TV industry

Whether you identify more with super-nerd Sheldon Cooper or his airhead neighbor Penny, or reach for your FBI badge at work when you forget you're not actually a member of the "Criminal Minds" team, TV shows allow us to live vicariously through amiable characters with, despite, and especially because of their flaws.

Movies just can't hook us in the same way. And the closer you get to a character, the more human - and able to transcend cultural boundaries - they become.

Five kilograms of entertainment

The current trend, however, has been a long time in the making. "It all started with 'Twin Peaks,'" said Jürgen Müller, the author of a recently published five-kilogram (11-pound) volume called TASCHEN's Favorite TV Shows: The top shows of the last 25 years."

His in-depth, six-year-long analysis of the phenomenon of the "new" TV series, as he calls them, was a true labor of love. As an art historian at the Dresden University of Technology, his area of specialty is the interpretation of images.

The front page of the book, published by Germany's TASCHEN, features a still from Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning TV series "Twin Peaks," which is currently making a comeback after a two-season run in the early 90s.

Vulnerable characters and dark passengers

To understand the shift in TV series, one must really take a deeper look at "Twin Peaks," Müller said.

Still from "Twin Peaks", Copyright: INTERTOPICS / Taschen-Verlag
Perhaps the most attractive corpse in Television history: actress Sheryl Lee played Laura Palmer in 'Twin Peaks'Image: INTERTOPICS / Taschen-Verlag

"Those parts in 'Twin Peaks' were really impressive when the show first started, to say the least. They still are. This was the first time that you saw a series that was entirely built on the premise of having vulnerable characters aired on prime-time television. That was revolutionary at the time."

"Twin Peaks" followed the peculiar murder case of Laura Palmer and lay open the complex and interwoven relationships in a small town in the Pacific Northwest of the US. It was the first TV series venture by renowned director David Lynch, who is chiefly known for his films like "Blue Velvet" and "The Elephant Man."

Noted for his intimate and surrealistic approach toward unpleasant subject matters, Lynch managed to translate the strangeness of his signature supernatural worlds from films into the series format with Twin Peaks, leaving TV audiences second-guessing what was real.

The newer, successful series tend to focus on authenticity and plausibility - which also means losing a preoccupation with having a happy ending, or even a happy middle, for that matter.

"What's become important now is to create believable characters with realistic challenges. The protagonists are no longer all good or all evil, but they rather take on much more complex dimension of personality. The dark side of human nature is also much more involved in these new productions, which have evolved a lot since the early 1990s," said Müller, whose mammoth book highlights 70 series.

The export of the complicated American dream

Los Angeles-based screenwriter Shelly Goldstein agrees with Müller's observations. Goldstein, who has worked on countless scripts in the TV industry over the years, brings up the hit series "The Sopranos" as an example of the multidimensional characters that TV audiences have come to expect.

Shelly Goldstein, Copyright: Kit Rogers
Scriptwriter and comedian Shelly Goldstein says that TV audiences prefer complex characters over superficial partsImage: Kit Rogers

"The main character Tony Soprano is a monster as well as a caring family man, who is aware of his imperfections. He is a unique embodiment of the American dream. The combination of James Gandolfini's complex performance and the brilliant writing by creator and show-runner David Chase and his staff was embraced by audiences around the world," Goldstein told DW, emphasizing that these shows are being exported globally.

"You see a similar dynamic in the character of Walter White in 'Breaking Bad,' who begins as a nondescript chemistry teacher facing a death sentence from cancer. His anger at his condition and his determination to care for and protect his family literally turn him into a sociopath. Yet we see the heart within the monster," explained Goldstein.

'Breaking Bad' addicts understand dependency

Müller also pointed out "Breaking Bad" as one of the main game changers in the evolution of series. He refers to these American exports as "quality TV" with universal appeal.

"'Breaking Bad' even alludes to the dark side of the human condition in its title," he points out, explaining that the multifaceted struggles of protagonist Walter White add further aesthetic value to the polished format.

"Despite the fictional nature of series, it becomes easier to identify with the narratives that the characters portrayed in these shows deal with, even when they face challenges that you and I may likely never face. I mean, Walter White is dealing with crystal meth, while audiences are dealing with another addiction altogether: the fact that they can't stop watching this show."

The art of acting in a nuanced series

For an actor, playing such nuanced roles brings about its own set of challenges. Eric Millegan got his big break playing the part of Dr. Zack Addy on the hit-series "Bones" for five years running, following his successful career on Broadway. Millegan says that he appreciated the fact that the series was based on real criminal cases studied by forensic anthropologist Kathy Reichs, and that he used all his training as an actor to do his part justice.

Eric Millegan, Copyright: "Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Eric Millegan shot to fame for his role of Dr Zack Addy in 'Bones'Image: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

"In Bones, the role I played was that of a forensic anthropologist. Since I'm not able to go to college for eight years to learn everything that would involve, I have to make sure that I look like I know what I'm talking about even if I haven't a clue what I'm talking about. That's what actors do," he told DW.

The quality of the script makes all the difference. With ever-growing opportunities springing up for writers, new production and distribution channels such as Netflix and Amazon - which are now commissioning their own productions - keep popping up all the time.

Müller says that the TV shows he examined in his book all stood out for incredible dialogues and ambitious production values that have now become industry standards. "TV series deserve to be regarded on the same level as blockbusters. Long gone are the days of light entertainment shows like 'Lassie,'" Müller mused.

The most comfortable acting job

Shelly Goldstein meanwhile underscores that the changing face of television shows has not only altered the expectations of audiences but of actors as well. For decades, she says, movies were considered high-brow, while TV series were seen as low-brow. "But that, too, has changed over time. Actors are dying to get parts in TV shows because of the quality and dimension of storylines and characters found in the best TV series," Goldstein said, adding that her favorite show is "Mad Men."

Still from "Mad Men", Copyright: Taschen-Verlag
'Mad Men' is one of the favorites for the Emmys 2015Image: Taschen-Verlag

But another reason why actors might be keen to get roles in series is the fact that it often comes with a predictable schedule - something that is unheard of elsewhere in the entertainment industry.

"I wouldn't call 'Bones' a 9-to-5 job, but it certainly was the longest job I ever had in acting. In anything, really," said Eric Millegan. "I would only need to be in two or three days a week. But when you're on stage, you work six days a week."

TV to infinity and beyond

As the Emmy Awards, held on September 20, celebrate another year of outstanding performances and breaking new ground in television programming, the future of TV series looks promising.

Nominations in various categories include Goldstein's personal first choice, "Mad Men," which deals with New York's Madison Avenue advertisement industry in the 1960s, as well as Millegan's frontrunner, "TransParent," a show that takes on the challenges of coming out as transsexual later in life with much zest and humor.

"The lure of television is potent because it speaks to an infinite audience with infinite needs," says Goldstein before rushing off to another meeting in Los Angeles.